Dawn Heep may have grown up on a small farm in rural Michigan, but she’s a city girl at heart. She loves the vibrancy of an urban setting and being right in the middle of things. After living in Los Angeles and Seattle, she recently moved to Munich to take a role as CFO of JDA’s EMEA region. Having a native speaker in the household – her husband is a German citizen – has made the transition easier, but it’s probably safe to say that she would have taken the leap no matter what. Taking calculated risks has helped her build an amazing career filled with experiences that have shaped her as leader and set her up for success in her new role.
Dawn finding balance on her bike!
SCN: How did the opportunity to move to Europe come about?
DH: Let me first say this: I think women don’t voice what we want enough. We tend to hold back. So, the entire reason this opportunity came about is because I had a career conversation with (former JDA CFO) Marc Levine and shared that my one big regret was that I had opportunities when I worked at HP to take international assignments and it never worked out. I would find out someone else got the role and think “Darn, why didn’t I voice that I wanted to do that?” When we moved to this new regional model, Marc remembered the conversation. So, I encourage people to voice what they want to do, because it might not be available at that minute, but when an opportunity becomes available, someone will remember that conversation.
SCN: Your advice, then, is to not wait for someone to ask what you want?
DH: Exactly. People often wait until an opportunity is available or voice it only when someone asks them. I say set up a 1:1 to discuss it. It can even be a skip-level meeting – it doesn’t have to be with your manager. Maybe you want to learn about a different organization; set up time with a manager there and find out what they do. You’ve got to get out there and network so people know you and your interests. When something becomes available, they’ll think about that conversation.
I don’t think it even has to be “I want this certain job or this certain level.” It can just be “I want a certain set of experiences” or “I’d like to learn a little more about that group,” because that could lead to taking on another project within your current role. That also shows people that you have drive and you want to do more.
SCN: What is your academic background?
DH: I have a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Michigan, and an MBA in finance from UCLA. I recall graduating thinking “What am I going to do with this economics degree?” and then going into the career center and finding a pamphlet that read “What you can do with an Economics degree.” It mentioned procurement and I thought that looked interesting – I do enjoy shopping! So, I started looking for buyer or procurement roles.
SCN: Did you work for a while and then go back for your MBA?
DH: I graduated from Michigan in three years – I just wanted to get a job! Nine days after graduating I packed up my car and moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t know anybody. I got an apartment and started looking. I stumbled on a procurement/project management role at a small global defense contractor. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. I eventually ran the Asia-Pacific region and got to travel to Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan. I wanted to do more and get my MBA, so after nearly seven years there I stopped working, took out loans and went back to school. After my MBA, I was hired by HP and was there for nearly 20 years.
SCN: Why did you choose Los Angeles?
DH: I spent a week traveling with a friend who was applying to medical schools in California. We went to Los Angeles and I loved the beaches and the city in general. I was California dreaming! But it was hard! I got there and didn’t have any friends. I had a bed, some kind of an outdoor table and a microwave – that was it. I remember being so lonely and depressed because I was by myself. But I think you have to give something time to really know if you hate it or love it. I call it my 18 month rule…try something for that long and if you still feel the same way – make a change. I might have been depressed and itching to go back to Michigan, but I was determined to hold out. After a year-and-a-half I had friends and a cool job, and everything worked out. Learning to be comfortable with yourself and having to make it on your own is a good thing. It builds character.
SCN: Have you ever made a decision that didn’t work out?
DH: I made a pretty big mistake with a bid when working at the defense contractor. It was a small company and as a result they were going to lose close to a million dollars. I assumed I would be fired. I told the owner what happened and when he looked at me I thought, “Oh no, here it comes. I’m just going to have to pack up and go home.” He said, “You know, you make 100 decisions a day and you can expect one or two of them to be wrong. I just admire the fact that you made a decision. Let’s learn from it. Let’s work together to fix it.” He helped me retract the bid and get it resolved. I’ll always remember that. I think it is worse to not make a decision, or take a long time to make one, than to make the wrong one. As a manager, I want people to be decisive, confident and try things. But if you make an error, take accountability, learn from it and fix it.
SCN: It sounds like you had a good boss who didn’t lose his cool when you messed up.
DH: It was a total teaching moment. That experience had such an impact on me. I want people on my team to feel the same way. People should be empowered. If they’re not, they’re never going to learn to be leaders. That experience was key for me personally, but also in developing my management style.
SCN: What is the best advice you’ve received?
DH: My mentor at HP used to ask, “What good can come of it?” She’d use it in the context of when you’re upset about a situation and want to react quickly, or maybe send a fiery email. So now I pause and ask myself, “What good is going to come from that reaction?” It’s important to pause, listen and think about it. I was very fortunate that she was my mentor and is still a friend. She also would say, when I wanted to check-in on vacation, “We’re not saving lives – you work in finance. Life will go on if you don’t check in.” She was right!
SCN: What characteristic do you believe every leader should possess?
DH: Compassion. Put yourself in others’ shoes. Try to think through when you take an action or decision, what are the ramifications to another team? And listen. I think a lot of times we want to take the lead and offer our perspective, but as a leader you have to be able to take input. I like to ask the team, “What do you think?” I don’t want to slow down decision making, but it’s important to empower people and encourage them to make decisions. I want people to know that I’m open to feedback; if you think I’m wrong about something, pick up the phone and let’s talk about it. It’s not that I don’t want to make a decision, but that I want the group to feel like they can give input.
SCN: What do you know now, that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
DH: The time to try things out is when you first start a career. I think people get into a company and the first thing they want to ask is, “How do I get to the next level, and then to the next level, and the next one?” My boss used to say, “You want to have a lot of tools in your toolbox.” – meaning breadth of experience. You want to know a little bit about marketing, operations, procurement or whatever that gives you a sense of how a company works. The time to do that – to do lateral moves to gain breadth – is when you first start at a company. Once you become a manager or a director in a certain area it’s a lot harder to try something else. The more experiences you can piece together, the better manager and the better employee you’re going to be. I also think your work will be more rewarding. When we get fixated on moving up the ladder you can miss out on opportunities.
SCN: How do you keep your skills sharp?
DH: Mentoring, because it helps me gain perspective and understand how others look at problems. I’ve had a lot of great mentors in my life, especially at HP. I never felt there were limits on what I could do – at HP or at JDA. I want to encourage people as I was encouraged, and to feel like there are no limits. I try to do either a formal mentoring program – HP had one every year within finance – or at JDA there are three folks I meet with informally every week, just to check in and see how things are going. It doesn’t have to be about a specific topic. It can just be about a life experience. Even though I’m the mentor, I’m learning about different groups or challenges in another area. It is definitely a two-way street. A lot of times, those are some of my most enjoyable meetings.
I’ve also tried to take on things that a normal finance person wouldn’t. There are areas you can jump into that access your skills, but there is a newness to it so that you’re always learning. Raise your hand! You might not know everything about a project, but it gives you exposure and keeps your skills sharp in that you’re trying something new and it builds on your breadth.
SCN: How do you find balance?
DH: I am very much into exercise – it helps me find balance. I am big into cycling; we brought seven bikes with us to Germany. I’m not the fastest cyclist, but I do a lot of distance stuff – this past year I completed rides from Seattle to Portland and Seattle to Canada. Both were about 200 miles in total over 2 days. Exercise is important. When you feel healthy it also helps you in the work environment.
SCN: Do you have any regrets?
DH: I wouldn’t really call it a regret, but a learning that I wish I knew earlier in life – don’t assume that people know what you want (from a career or life goal). Communicate it! You never know where that conversation will take you. At JDA, the possibilities are endless.